For anyone who missed it being published on Clamour’s website, here’s the article again (Click here to view on Clamour):
Are we too precious about the classics, or is the literary canon being sullied by modern adaptation and blasphemous reinvention?
Is this a question of artistic integrity or snobbery? Or is it nothing so high-flown, and merely a signal for change in social approaches to literature and the arts in general? In an age where the big screen is constantly beating books in the popularity contest, the relationship between these two art forms is changing. Slap a new cover on an old book, with the familiar faces of a recent screen adaptation, and that book will fly off the shelves that before had only been gathering dust.
Two recent examples that have undergone a screen ‘revamp’ are “War & Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, in the much acclaimed BBC adaptation in January of this year, and the Jane Austen inspired “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” by Seth Grahame-Smith, released as a feature film in February.
Reworking literature is not a new idea. Satire has always existed, ever since there were people making art, from Ancient Greece to the present day. Satire, parody, homage and pastiche – the oldest forms of criticism or veneration. What, then, makes these two examples of particular interest? What new trend are they evidencing?
War & Peace
The BBC’s recent adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel “War & Peace” was described as receiving the “Game of Thrones Treatment”. (It certainly does seem like the networks are responding effusively to the global TV hit.) Far more sexualised than Tolstoy’s original novel, it caused some stir among the literati. As an avid reader myself, I can understand the feeling of betrayal that follows the release of an unfaithful TV or film adaptation. But, in the case of “War & Peace”, which was surely an epic testament and homage to Tolstoy, the critical upset is really the result of literary snobbery. “How very dare you?” They seem to say.
I say, “So what?” So what if BBC’s War & Peace” had some scandalous sex added in? Sales of the novel have rocketed since January, as well as interest in Russian history and politics. Tolstoy’s gargantuan bookend of a novel is, even to myself, an avid reader and graduate of English, an intimidating prospect. Regardless of criticism and popular opinion, the fact that this recent TV series has inspired people to take on the epic in paper form is itself a triumph.
Pride & Prejudice and Zombies
The release of “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” marks another turn from faithful recreation. The film is based on a book of the same title by Seth Grahame-Smith. When I heard this was to be released, I was under the impression it would be a ridiculous parody, an attempt made by an Austen critic to inject some action into the genteel Edwardian landscape. It’s quirky, outlandish and distinctly niche in its demographic. How, then, has this oblique title made its way into mainstream cinema? Has the budget and cast blown this niche parody out of proportion?
The film, while not critically acclaimed, has, in my opinion, valid entertainment value. It also offers a refreshing approach to a title that’s already been recreated hundreds of times. Its writers and creators have clearly studied Austen, as was evidenced in glimmers of brilliance dotted throughout. Its parodic features, while hardly subtle, didn’t slap me in the face either. Some moments were wonderfully crafted in such a way that original dialogue worked perfectly in context. Lizzy Bennett’s unchained encounter with Darcy after his ill-met proposal was a highlight. Lizzy grabs the fire poker and lets him have it – there is no repression in Grahame-Smith’s universe. A badass Edwardian woman gets a modern reprieve in this adaptation that Austen would have approved of.
Good satire, it is said, punches up. This simply means that it should have a positive purpose, it should have relevance, make a point. What point does “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” make? That in order to make classic fiction appeal to a modern audience it has to include zombies?
And yes, satire has been around a long time. But might it be fair to say that “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” has pushed the boat out a little further, enhanced as it is by its mainstream platform? Are we to expect only greater deviation from the form, with satire eventually falling back in on itself. It will reach its apex and crumble, having lost its relevance, becoming only self-referential.
Is it fair to put these side by side?
Now you might be thinking that having these two examples side by side is a misrepresentation of the vogue of classical reincarnation. Certainly, they approach the task of reinvention from different ends of the scale. “War & Peace” is an homage, “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” is a parody. One attempts to be faithful, while taking the occasional liberty with subtext. The other pulls haphazardly at the threads of humour of repression and gentility and forces it to bear witness to a world of violence and bloodshed. But, in either case, the story is maintained. The romance persists, the classic lives on.
Classics have been reworked before, in a thousand different guises. What is so special about these most recent ones? It is, I argue, the fact that niche parody and pastiche has made its way into the mainstream. The new flow of literary adaptation on screen is, for some, the only means by which canonical literature has made an impression. Without these reincarnations, the classic titles are left relatively unknown. Without exposure to the wonderful words within, the general populous assumes only boredom and old-fashioned notions hide behind the covers of Austen, Bronte, Tolstoy, Thackeray, Dickens, Orwell, Shelley, Wilde, Fitzgerald, etc. The authors and their prolific titles exist in a bubble of elitism that deters so many would-be readers. Excuses and assumptions range from “It’s too long” to “I’m not smart enough” to the utterly banal response “it’s old”. But put a screenplay into production and people are suddenly lapping up the literature. It is made accessible.
Sales of Tolstoy’s “War & Peace” have skyrocketed since the BBC series in January. The same goes for the Oscar nominated releases that owe their inspiration to books – “Room”, “The Revenant”, “Carol”, “The Danish Girl”, among others. However, sales of “Pride & Prejudice” and its offshoot, “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies”, have seen less noticeable results in the wake of the film release.
Perhaps it is possible to see this as a test of great cinema – its ability to sell the books it is derived from is a thermometer for its quality. When a film or TV production has the result of high book sales, that production is transcending its form. It is testament to the power of art, reaching into the hearts and minds of those that behold it. When screen adaptations inspire others to read, they are legitimising their position as works of art – a fact that the Literati fail to recognize in their snobbery.
As a rule, the commercial practise of turning a popular book into a film has the redoubling effect of making the book even more popular. It isn’t just a case of book leads to film. It’s more a case of book leads to film leads to book. Rarely is it the case that sales of a book based only on a film match that of the sales of a book that inspired a film. Is this evidence of books still coming up trumps? Is the making of a film adaptation really a step in the commercial flowchart that ultimately leads back to selling more books? So perhaps “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” will not pass this test of what makes good cinema, but no matter. They cannot sully the good name of Jane Austen. Her work has stood the test of time already. Good art, relevant art, relatable art, will ultimately transcend its form.